5 Storytelling Mistakes

Lessons Learned

I wrote my first feature screenplay 16 years ago. It took only three months. To write. And then ten years to forget. That’s how bad it was. Along the sixteen years, I learned some lessons and improved my skills. With my second screenplay, Waltzing Kingdoms, I was a finalist at an international writing competition.

Heart of Storytelling

Storytelling in elearning (and game-based learning/gamification) is an essential technique that can help us design more engaging and effective learning. Here’s a great article on that from Connie Malamed.

Here’s 5 mistakes that beginner writers (including myself) often commit in writing screenplays (and how they relate to storytelling in learning).

1. On-the-nose dialogue

This is what bad writing looks like in a screenplay:

This would never happen in a movie. Why? Because people don’t say what they mean in real life. Especially, when they are emotionally charged. When you create a dialog for elearning, give a personality to the characters. Everyone speaks differently. Everyone reacts to stress differently. Don’t put words into people’s mouth. Put feelings into their hearts and the let the words come out naturally. Let the audience read between the lines. They will be much more engaged.

2. Unnatural speak

Creating good dialog in a movie is really hard. What looks good on paper, many times does not translate well when spoken. In fact, writers often end up redoing or even ditching whole scenes because they just don’t work. How do you know if the script works? READ IT OUT ALOUD (letters capitalized in writing often feels like you’re shouting :))!

What looks good on paper, or even sounds perfect in your head, may not work at all when spoken. Always read it out aloud! For learning, the script is often created by the SME. It “covers” all the content but when read it out loud, it actually sounds like a teleprompter. Especially in a dialog. Unnatural. People don’t talk like a marketing brochure. You can easily kill your story by bad dialog.

3. Unrelatable Characters

Often, beginner screenplay writers add all kinds of twists and turns to make the story exciting. The thing is, it’s not the twists and turns what make a story tick. It’s the fact that the audience can relate to the characters and root for them. If you don’t care about a character, you don’t care about what happens to them. That’s why it’s rare that an affluent, well-educated, healthy, athletic, raggedly handsome guy is the main hero. Unless it’s a thriller and they would lose all of it…

For learning, create scenarios and characters that your audience can directly relate to. Don’t make up a sunshine scenario, where all the customers are nice, they all know their account numbers, and express why they’re calling in HR appropriate, marketingly approved full sentences. BORING… That’s just not real. Add accent, add noise, add mumbling, add tone, add whatever makes it real.

Oh, and the golden excuse? We don’t want to provide bad examples? Well, that’s a whole different post…

4. Long-long scenes

There’s a simple rule in screenplay writing: keep a scene only, if it drives the story forward. “Kill your babies”  means that you must get rid of all extra fluff, nice to know, unless it directly drives the story. Even if it’s the best scene you’ve ever written. Believe me, it’s REALLY hard…

The second part of the rule is that if you must have a scene, you should come in AS LATE AS YOU CAN, and leave AS SOON AS YOU CAN. Here’s an example: if a boss is about to lay off one of his direct reports, the scene would not start with the boss calling the person to come in, shut the door, have a chat around the day, etc.

The scene would start with they both sitting in the office. Staring each other. And silence. Then the direct report says something like: “What about my new house? We just closed yesterday… My wife…” And the Boss would turn to his computer as he gets a message: “Happy Hour tonight?” He types: “Maybe. 5 more layoffs.  Keep you posted.” and says “It’s the economy. And you’re not the only one.” AND CUT.

For learning, create a scenario that includes elements that needed for the learning. Scenarios are powerful but keep them as short as you can. Start with the core problem. Let the learner explore the situation and learn more. Maybe include a notebook function in the elearning where learner can keep information they think is important.

5. Lack of Beats

Without “beats,” whether actually having these words in the script or not, a story is not a story. A story works only if it evokes emotions. Scenes that you remember after years and years from a movie, yet you have no clue about what happened before of after, those contain beats… Why? Because they left an emotional footprint on you!

A “beat” in a screenplay is an extremely important moment, where something absolutely critical thing happens. Most of the time, it’s a dramatic revelation both for a character and the audience. As a writer, you use this sparingly but you must have these in the story. A good example is the movie, The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan [SPOILER ALERT]:

How could you forget this scene? When you realize he’s dead, right? That’s a beat. You will never forget it. I bet Bruce Willis will never forget it.

For learning, you must strive to create the same experience for the learner (worker, participant, whatever your term is). Beats. Moments, when the learner, while exploring the content, suddenly has a A-HA moment, a beat, that they would never forget because it leaves an emotional footprint.







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